No filmmaker captured the Me Decade more adroitly than Paul Mazursky, whose ’70s movies depict intersections between such things as hippie-era spiritualism, recreational drugs, and therapy sessions. During a streak that began with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969 and continued through Willie & Phil in 1980, Mazursky told unconventional stories about wildly flawed people who both exploit and fall victim to cultural trends. Throughout this period, Mazursky also demonstrated special sensitivity for themes related to the Sexual Revolution. While An Unmarried Woman (1978) is the most famous of Masursky’s ’70s films because the picture tapped into the women’s-movement zeitgeist, Blume in Love tells a similar story from a different perspective—and with much more discipline.
Both films begin with a marriage falling apart as a result of the husband’s adultery. An Unmarried Woman, obviously, examines the female point of view, tracking a character’s journey from humiliation to self-respect. Blume in Love explores what happens to a philanderer after he gets caught, adding in the seriocomic premise of a husband falling back in love with his wife the moment he loses her. Building a movie around a schmuck involves threading a very fine needle, but Mazursky is a writer-director of such supple skills that he comes as close to pulling off the trick as possible. The most interesting aspect of Blume in Love, however, is that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether viewers like the lead character; the goal of the film is simply to reveal enough aspects of the protagonist that he’s understood. As in the best of Mazursky’s movies, empathy is the order of the day.
The picture begins in Italy, where bearded and morose Stephen Blume (George Segal) laments the recent dissipation of his marriage. In flashbacks, Mazursky tracks the arc of Stephen’s relationship with Nina (Susan Anspach), eventually taking the flashbacks up to Stephen’s departure for Italy. The whole movie, therefore, represents the thought process by which Stephen comes to grips with what he lost and learns to accept that the split was his fault. Mazursky pulls no punches in his portrayal of Stephen as a self-serving son of a bitch—the character does horrible things to Nina—so one of the questions the movie investigates is how much toxicity a relationship can survive if the foundation of the relationship is genuine love.
In the most surprising flashbacks, an unexpected bond develops between Stephen, Nina, and Nina’s rebound boyfriend, a hippie musician named Elmo (Kris Kristofferson). Whereas Nina and Stephen represent typical upper-class L.A. neuroticism—the spouses even use the same psychotherapist—Elmo epitomizes the counterculture mindset. He’s a work-averse dropout who spends every day screwing, singing, and smoking. Kristofferson’s performance energizes the middle of the picture, because his unpredictable character takes the story in so many fresh directions.
Segal, always a pro at playing amiable pricks, complements his expert comic timing with subtler shadings, displaying the vulnerability that bubbles underneath Stephen’s cocksure façade. The forgettable Anspach is a weak link, but in her defense, the Nina character is more of a narrative construct than a believable individual. Blume in Love is far from perfect, not only because the central character’s behavior will undoubtedly turn off many viewers but also because the movie’s a bit fleshy. (A subplot featuring Mazursky in an acting role as Stephen’s partner works well, but a larger subplot featuring Shelley Winters as one of Stephen’s clients seems extraneous.) Still, the movie’s best scenes represent Mazursky’s unique approach to social satire at its most humanistic and incisive.
Blume In Love: GROOVY